A Spy Balloon and a Reporting Trip to China, Up in the Air

The Chinese diplomat behind the window at the visa office called me and the other journalists up to the desk, one by one, to hand us our passports. I flipped through mine until I saw the entry visa for China, good for four days.

It seemed an auspicious way to kick off the Year of the Rabbit, which promised to be a busy one for United States-China relations, a subject I cover as a diplomatic correspondent for The New York Times.

The other reporters and I were set to board a plane the next night with Antony J. Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, to spend two days in China, which had closed itself off from the world during the coronavirus pandemic and was only just starting to reopen. An American secretary of state had not visited Beijing, the Chinese capital, since 2018, and we were making the trip to report on Mr. Blinken’s talks with President Xi Jinping and other top Chinese officials.

I have traveled around the world many times with American secretaries of state, but this trip had a personal dimension: I reported from China for nearly a decade, and was The Times’s Beijing bureau chief before finally returning to the United States in 2016. I got married and started a family there; I have lived in Beijing, longer than I have in any other city in my adult life. Since leaving I have been back to China only once, on a brief reporting trip.

During the week leading up to this visit, I bought gifts for old friends and arranged for a reunion dinner at a favorite restaurant, Susu, located in the same ancient alleyway where I had once lived. But within hours of my biking home from the visa office, the trip was put in jeopardy — by a surprise visitor to the United States from China.

On that Thursday afternoon, Feb. 2, Pentagon officials revealed in a briefing with reporters that they believed a mysterious white orb bobbing in the skies above Montana was a Chinese spy balloon, after NBC News posted an article saying that the American military had been tracking it. The officials said they were not going to shoot down the balloon yet because of a concern that falling debris could harm people on the ground.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s journey to Beijing would have been the first trip there by a Biden Cabinet secretary.Credit…Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

That night, other diplomatic correspondents and I heard that Mr. Blinken and White House and Pentagon officials were debating whether or not to cancel his visit. We realized that the trip itself was becoming a big part of the story.

Some Republican lawmakers issued statements criticizing President Biden for not shooting down the balloon immediately. Several called on Mr. Blinken to cancel his trip; others assumed he would go, but demanded that he take a hard stand while there. The Republican lawmakers on the House Foreign Affairs Committee said it was “imperative” that Mr. Blinken tell Mr. Xi and his government during the visit that “their military adventurism will no longer be tolerated.”

I stopped packing and went to bed past midnight, still unsure of what would happen.

The next morning, State Department officials told us we should get tested for Covid-19, a standard requirement for traveling with the secretary. At the same time, the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing issued a statement saying the balloon was a civilian machine designed for weather research that had, regrettably, strayed off course. It seemed that Chinese diplomats were trying to salvage the trip.

I had just finished getting my test at the State Department when agency officials told reporters to join a briefing call, during which they announced that Mr. Blinken was canceling the trip. Mr. Biden had approved the decision that morning. At a news conference that afternoon, Mr. Blinken said the “irresponsible act” by China had violated U.S. sovereignty, and he would only make the trip “when conditions allow.”

So instead of traveling to Beijing, I spent the weekend reporting with my colleague Helene Cooper, a Pentagon correspondent, on a U.S. fighter jet shooting down the balloon off the coast of South Carolina. We also reported on the fallout: the search for the debris, the rise in tensions in United States-China relations and revelations about the global balloon surveillance program being directed by the People’s Liberation Army of China.

Television networks were running nonstop coverage; people across the country were posting about spotting the balloon as it drifted from above the Rocky Mountains to the Midwestern plains to the Atlantic Coast. I received texts from family members and friends throughout the weekend asking about the balloon.

As theories and speculation circulated, I contacted government sources and China experts I had known for years; this kind of story always sets off a scramble in the Washington press corps for limited scraps of information. U.S. officials were only learning about the balloon’s capabilities in real time, and we kept updating our articles as we got facts.

I was likely spending more time reporting on China than if I had actually accompanied Mr. Blinken on his diplomatic mission to Beijing.

My friends in China and I were disappointed that the trip was canceled, but we knew that the vagaries of international diplomacy and espionage were beyond our control.

That Saturday night, hours after the balloon was shot down, I attended the birthday dinner of a good friend at a new Chinese restaurant in downtown Washington. All the guests knew each other from our years in Beijing. We ate duck and toasted one another with rice wine and listened to a song that one of the hosts had asked to hear, Nena’s “99 Luftballons.”

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